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A tribute to Kalman Levine

Cary Levine (now known as Kalman Levine) always had a big heart, with lots of love.

He made people smile, and he made them laugh.

He had many gifts, but this was his greatest.

As a kid, I spent endless days with him. Nothing would ever be boring when he was around. Creativity would be brought to every activity done in his presence. I often asked my parents to bring me over to his house. When I was old enough to drive, I took myself. Being with Cary was always a great experience. And what a special household his was. Cary loved his parents Bernie and Joan, and his sisters Stefanie and Shelley; loving your parents the way he did was rare, especially in the ‘70s. Actually, much of his love he inherited from his parents. And naturally, he loved what they loved. He loved jazz. He loved art. He loved Basenjis. He loved laughter.

He himself was a born artist. He could take a lump of clay and make something so funny, it would split your sides. But not just clay; he could take his own face and make it into any shape he wanted; he could have been Jim Carrey’s face-rabbi. He could jump gracefully off a diving board and pretend to be a swan, effortlessly, earning the oohs and aahs of anybody in sight. He was great in sports; in every sport. 

But his big heart was his greatest gift.

He helped others live their lives with greater joy. He cared.

In school, we horsed around a lot. We did some wild things. Somehow I got caught much more often than he did. Once we left our “hot lunch” early, taking with us our cafeteria trays. We went down to the frozen creek that ran parallel to 75th Street, and slid wildly, for miles, on the ice. I don’t remember how we made our way back; but I do remember getting in trouble. Cary seemed to be too well-loved to get seriously punished; how can you punish such a loving soul? Besides, he could melt you with his face; I don’t mean melt-down, I mean melt-by-cuteness.

After college, Cary became Kalman, and welcomed a more religious Jewish life. He was always a good student, but now he was a great student. Of Torah, of Judaism, of kindness. But he kept his sense of humor, his care for others, his smile and his contagious love of life. He was incredibly humble. Kalman was the most humble man I ever met. Ever. And he was in total control of his words. He would not say a disparaging word about others, following the great Jewish tradition of “Shmirat Halashon,” and more importantly, he refused to believe bad things said about others, including those big headlines often sported by newspapers. His learning and his actions not only focused on what a Jewish person should do, but how a Jewish person should act. He became an expert in “Mussar” and “Middot” — the part of Judaism that emphasizes kindness and humility and care for others. He began as a student, and then became a student-teacher, and then went on to become a student-rabbi, and reached the level of student-scholar. The Hebrew term for scholar, for thousands of years, has always been “Talmud Chacham” — a wise student. This was Kalman. In his own eyes, he never stopped being a student. 

And his love for his family — he started a new dynasty in Israel of which he was patriarch — was unmatched. 

Some people are unhappy, or selfish, or mean … and then become religious. When non-religious people meet them, they think that their behavior represents Judaism. This is sad.

Kalman didn’t turn to Judaism because he was unhappy or selfish or mean. The opposite was true! He was happy, he had a constant love of life and love of people, he was always a very giving person, and cared about others, and was incredibly nice. When people met him, they often thought that this behavior represented Judaism. They were absolutely right! One of the world’s greatest secrets — hidden by the media for whatever reason — is that Israel is a country with mostly wonderful, kind people who are doing their best to better the world through the Jewish tradition. Kalman took all the great gifts he was given by God and by his parents and by his educators, by Kansas City and by Israel, and he used them to make the world a better place. 

Please take a moment and reflect on that.

The greatest tribute to Kalman’s unique ethics-centered and loved-filled life is to emulate him. To take one characteristic of his life and try to run with it in our own lives. Perhaps we will think twice before we speak disparaging things about others; perhaps we’ll hug our loved ones more often; perhaps we’ll work on making people smile more and feel better about themselves; perhaps we’ll study Judaism and emphasize the role of kindness in life. Even if it means making a funny face.

The terrorists who murdered Kalman — and others — during morning prayers in their local synagogue Tuesday morning thought they were doing something that would help themselves and hurt the victims. What they didn’t know is that they lessened their own world! The just made the world a tougher place to live in — including for themselves! — and axed themselves, too, in the process. This is what happens when you murder someone you don’t even know and for no reason; it’s called terror. It is a double-edged sword.

What we have to do now — whether in Kansas City or in Israel or anywhere else in the world — is to make the world richer again. To bring back a bit of Kalman Levine and keep fixing this world and bettering it, like he did. This tradition has helped us overcome terrible events in the past, and it will help us overcome these terrible events which ended Kalman’s life. It is an integral part of Judaism and of Israel: overcoming hardships (even if the world often thinks you’re doing the opposite). The forces of good and kindness and love will beat the forces of hate and murder and blood.

Our hearts go out to Kalman’s family, immediate and extended, all over the world. Your loss is our loss, too. We are with you in this terrible tragedy, and we will not let it make us cynical or weak or mean. 

And Kalman, we will not forget you. Your very life is our legacy. 

Chazak Chazak V’Nitchazek!

Michael Even-Esh (formerly Firestone) of Golan Heights, Israel, was a member of the first graduating class at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in 1976, along with Kalman Levine.